As hour after hour went by and the morning became afternoon, the chances of finding a 30-year-old California man on Monday last week somewhere in the Grand Canyon seemed to be slipping away.
Ranger Ira Blitzbau, left, assists Xiaochao Xu and ranger Bil Vandergraff as they land at the Pima Point overlook on Monday of last week during a helicopter short-haul rescue. (Photo by NPS)
It was probable that missing hiker Xiaochao Xu would not be able to make it through another night of sub-freezing temperatures in wet clothes. Then, Grand Canyon National Park rangers caught a break at around 4 p.m. They found tracks in the snow.
"What helped us was the new snow because we were eventually able to pick up his tracks," GCNP search-and-rescue coordinator Ken Phillips said. "We found him west of Pima Point at the base of the Coconino."
Xu, a man of Asian descent who was visiting from Goleta, Calif., was successfully short-hauled out of the Canyon via helicopter in an operation that took just one hour, six minutes. Rescuers knew they needed to work fast because the sun was disappearing over the horizon.
Xu’s ordeal began the previous day when he wanted to hike down the Hermit Trail. Leaving his wife, Chenguo, at the trailhead, he headed down at around 11 a.m., on Dec. 29. He had told his wife he would be back in six hours at around 5 p.m.
The man’s wife headed back to their car and waited. Poor weather set in and snow began to fall. Five o’clock came and went. Her husband had not returned.
Getting behind the wheel and not knowing there was a nearby pay phone, she began to drive from Hermit’s Rest to try to get help. But the snow and ice on the road was too bad and she ended up spending the night near the trailhead.
Meanwhile, Xu was wandering around in the dark and in a snowstorm. After heading down the Hermit Trail for a few hours, he began to make his ascent at around 2 p.m. He was only a quarter-mile from the trailhead when he became disoriented in the storm.
In that particular spot, the trail features a series of switchbacks that can become confusing. He ended up losing the trail off one of those switchbacks that points to the northeast.
"He started traversing along in bad weather and lost the trail," Phillips said. "He became totally soaked in the weather. He fell down several times in the steep terrain and was pretty banged up."
Xu had a lighter and a small can of Sterno, which is a type of fuel used for small stoves. The Sterno did not last long, however. The only map he had was the park guide handed out at the entrance station. He did have a day pack with water, light snacks, camera and knife. He was wearing a jacket with gloves, lightweight shoes and a hat.
Xu made it through the night and his wife was finally able to get help at around 8:30 a.m. Based on the situation, searchers began looking for the man right away.
"I don’t believe he would’ve made it through a second night," Phillips said.
The SAR effort commenced on the ground and in the air with a helicopter. Rangers conducted interviews with backcountry hikers. Then at 4 p.m., Xu’s tracks were discovered off trail by the helicopter. Sean Cox and Marty McCaslin were on board with pilot Borden Miller at the controls.
Xu was found several hundred feet below the rim west of Pima Point standing on the small ledge where he had spent the night.
"We wound up short-hauling him out," Phillips said. "Bil Vandergraff was inserted. He was in an overhang, it was a confined area to reach him."
Besides the race against the clock, rescuers had to deal with steep terrain with loose rock, as well as the snowy and icy conditions.
After the rescue effort to the Pima Point overlook, Xu was examined by K.J. Glover in an ambulance. When rescued, Phillips said he was able to move and talk. He refused to see a physician after Glover’s examination and after getting into dry clothes.
The man’s injuries were limited to bad bruises, suffered while falling down hiking off the trail through rugged terrain for more than a mile.
Phillips said there can be lessons learned from Xu’s ordeal. When going on a day hike, people should always prepare for the worst-case scenario.
"He could’ve spent the night a lot more comfortably if he had more equipment, such as additional dry clothing," Phillips said. "It’s also good to have a signaling device of some sort. We spent all day looking for him ... also a whistle."